Myrtle Beach, South Carolina
Perhaps no group has been more affected by the failure to enact comprehensive medical marijuana laws than parents like Janel Ralph of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Her 6-year-old daughter, Harmony, suffers from lissencephaly — a condition which translates to “smooth brain” and is characterized by intense seizures.
While a healthy human brain looks like waffles, Ralph explained, Harmony’s is completely flat. Certain anti-epileptic medication proved ineffective and the months-long transition off of the drugs took a physical toll on Harmony and an emotional toll on her mother.
Ralph remembers watching as her daughter went through detox like a drug addict, accompanied by a new wave of seizures, vomiting, shaking fits and loss of bowel control.
“It’s awful. It’s horrible,” Ralph said, crying. “It’s the most hands-down horrible thing you’ve ever seen.”
Ralph and her husband decided they were ready to move to Colorado, where they could legally obtain CBD oil for Harmony and Ralph could hopefully resume her career as a photojournalist. It wasn’t until they saw Jill Swing advocating for a CBD oil bill on the local news that the parents decided to stick it out.
But after the legislation passed in 2014, there was still no legal mechanism for cultivation or distribution across South Carolina. Ralph decided to start a Facebook page, adding parents from several support groups for different seizure disorders.
“I figured if I had the demand, somebody out there was going to get me CBD for my child,” she said.
Over the next several months, a group of about half a dozen parents began collectively buying in on financially draining, illegal purchases of CBD oil across state lines. Time and time again, they were met with disappointment and disillusion.
PLAY Barry Matson, deputy director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, worked with Alabama legislators to create Carly’s Law, a bill to create a study on the affects of medical marijuana in the treatment of seizures. (Photo by Shawn Weismiller | News21)
The first purchase came in July 2014, when the parents delivered Ralph’s friend in Colorado a large sum of money in exchange for CBD oil. But the seller backed out just before the transaction was set to take place.
The group was eager to try again, but couldn’t track down a credible CBD dealer out of state. Instead, they received through the mail an acidic, non-psychoactive form of THC later that month, which temporarily placated Harmony's seizures.
Still hell-bent on finding CBD oil for their children, they finally identified a reportedly reputable seller based out of California, and spent a total of $5,000 for several 10-milliliter doses of oil.
But Harmony’s response to the drug wasn't what Ralph expected.
“I had a red flag,” Ralph said. “I really felt like something wasn't right.”
She began reaching out to others in the “mommy network” who purchased product from the California company in recent months. All of their lab tests were identical — a sign the results were falsified. Other parents who tried out the oil before giving it to their children described getting a high.
By the fourth day of treatment, Harmony was seizing almost every minute of the day. Her mother took her off the oil, and asked a parent with access to a lab to test the product.
The results came back. It was straight THC.
“At that point, I almost shut the entire thing down,” Ralph said.
Two months later, Ralph got a call from a seller in Colorado who had CBD and was looking for a buyer. She had already wasted thousands of dollars, and figured the seller’s $70 asking price couldn't do much harm.
Within a week of receiving the new product, Harmony’s seizures became much shorter and less frequent. By the second week, Harmony had gone 12 days seizure-free.
For the first time in a year and a half, Ralph heard her daughter laugh.
“She literally just blossomed. It was almost like overnight she just came alive,” Ralph said. “So then I knew, ‘OK, this is CBD — now I got it. Now what do we do?’”
After other parents became aware of Harmony’s results, the group expanded and went in on their greatest investment yet — 24 parents paid $15,000 for a six-month supply.
But the day before Thanksgiving, police raided the seller’s Colorado farm.
“That was my absolute breaking point,” Ralph said. “It wasn't so much taking the site down and protecting the parents — it was ‘my daughter needs this.’”
Ready to take matters into her own hands, Ralph founded Palmetto Synergistic Research. After communicating with a father in Kentucky who operates the country’s largest CBD grow, she began manufacturing her own oil made from hemp — a type of cannabis containing no more than 0.3 percent THC. Called “Palmetto Harmony,” it is sold in storefronts throughout the state, and used by parents across the South.
Ralph knows some patients may need higher amounts of THC not yet legal in the state, but she is grateful for the relief Palmetto Harmony has been able to provide.
“The ones that is does help — that is where the benefit is,” Ralph said. “Then it's worth doing.”
Just a week before Georgia state Rep. Allen Peake received an email from Janea Cox — a mother whose daughter suffered from intractable epilepsy — he told a Macon journalist there would be no interest in a medical marijuana bill during the 2014 legislative session.
“Absolutely no way,” Peake remembers saying. “I’m never going to touch that.”
Days later, he visited Eggleston Hospital’s intensive-care unit and stood over 4-year-old Haleigh Cox, on her deathbed.
Over the next 15 months, Peake would become the legislative champion of medical marijuana in Georgia, spearheading a comprehensive CBD oil law complete with eight qualifying conditions and a 5 percent THC cap — much higher than most states that have recently passed CBD legislation.
Peake’s victory was just one episode in a politically confusing, counterintuitive trend of Republican lawmakers suddenly, wholeheartedly taking up the mantle for medical marijuana in the Deep South.
For Peake, it didn't seem like that big of a stretch.
“We’re committed to family values,” he said. “Here we were, because of our own laws, splitting up families.”
Peake remembers many of his conservative colleagues telling him he’d gone off the deep end when he first proposed a medical marijuana bill in 2014. They said it would be the end of his time at the Capitol.
But he picked up steam with testimony from torn families like the Coxes, who were forced to leave the state in search of medication they couldn't obtain or even legally possess in Georgia. They just wanted to help their children.
Sue Rusche has children, too. She has been fighting against the spread of marijuana in Georgia before the state first passed its research program in 1980 with the help of lobbyists from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
She characterized the pro-legalization group’s intentions as sinister — preying on lawmakers’ emotions during debate over both the 1980 therapeutic use program and Peake’s 2015 CBD oil law.
“NORML was not against exploiting desperately ill people and bringing them in as witnesses to swear that they needed marijuana to survive,” Rusche said. “That brought forth the attraction in the same way that children with epilepsy are tugging at people’s heartstrings”
Rusche still remains active in state politics, and went to visit Peake last year. When his medical marijuana bill finally passed in 2015, Rusche perceived a disregard for the medical process that she said was similarly apparent 35 years ago.
Peake knows of no patients ever treated by Georgia’s 1980 Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act, and attributes its demise to a lack of interest. He scrapped the law entirely with his bill.
“It’s basically voiding the 1980 legislation and saying, ‘Here’s the new medical cannabis legislation that is in existence in Georgia at this time,’” Peake said.
In the state’s revised statute, the words “Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act” are stricken through with a bold line.
Its title now represents a new generation — “Haleigh’s Hope Act.”